Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto


For more than a century, Harlem has been the epicenter of black America, the celebrated heart of African American life and culture—but it has also been a byword for the problems that have long plagued inner-city neighborhoods: poverty, crime, violence, disinvestment, and decay.

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been chronicling the neighborhood for forty-three years, and Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto is an unprecedented record of urban change. Vergara began his ...

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For more than a century, Harlem has been the epicenter of black America, the celebrated heart of African American life and culture—but it has also been a byword for the problems that have long plagued inner-city neighborhoods: poverty, crime, violence, disinvestment, and decay.

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been chronicling the neighborhood for forty-three years, and Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto is an unprecedented record of urban change. Vergara began his documentation of Harlem in the tradition of such masters as Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind, and he later turned his focus on the neighborhood’s urban fabric, both the buildings that compose it and the life and culture embedded in them. By repeatedly returning to the same locations over the course of decades, Vergara is able to show us a community that is constantly changing—some areas declining, as longtime businesses give way to empty storefronts, graffiti, and garbage, while other areas gentrify, with corporate chain stores coming in to compete with the mom-and-pops. He also captures the ever-present street life of this densely populated neighborhood, from stoop gatherings to graffiti murals memorializing dead rappers to impersonators honoring Michael Jackson in front of the Apollo, as well as the growth of tourism and racial integration.

Woven throughout the images is Vergara’s own account of his project and his experience of living and working in Harlem. Taken together, his unforgettable words and images tell the story of how Harlem and its residents navigated the segregation, dereliction and slow recovery of the closing years of the twentieth century and the boom and racial integration of the twenty-first century. A deeply personal investigation, Harlem will take its place with the best portrayals of urban life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/14/2013
Setting out with a 35 mm camera in 1970, urban sociologist, historian, and photographer Vergara (How the Other Half Worships) has photographed the New York neighborhood of Harlem for 43 years. This stunning volume describes the lives of Harlem’s buildings and the activities of its residents. MacArthur Fellowship recipient Vergara’s archival stills are full of movement; the historic Baby Grand becomes King Party Center, a gift store, and then a Radio Shack. An ordinary address, 65 East 125th Street, first photographed in 1977, is transformed over the course of 13 photographs, becoming the Grocery Candy Smoke Shop, then a Sleepy’s, and finally, in 2011, a church. Vergara’s omnivorous camera takes in the architecture of the neighborhood (monuments, luxury apartments, projects, churches), as well as it culture (street art, parades, Thanksgiving dinners). One can almost hear two women talking in a shot taken at Jimbo’s, and sense the thoughts of the 90-year-old woman listening to Obama’s inaugural address. To experience Vergara’s photos is to live, for a spell, in Harlem. His text has similar immediacy: it’s pithy, engaging, and informative—a deft mingling of the personal and professional. “Unlike tourists taking snapshots,” Vergara writes, “people sense that I have a larger purpose.” He does, indeed: to capture and preserve Harlem’s history, the losses and the gains; this remarkable book does both. 268 color illus. (Jan.)
Luc Sante
"Camilo Jose Vergara has watched—and photographed—Harlem as it fell apart and then rose back up as something else. He chronicles the passage from poverty to selective luxury, from segregation to selective integration, from street life to tourism. He asks the unanswerable question: Which is preferable?"
Ben Katchor
"Wandering the streets of Harlem for the past forty years, Camilo Vergara has noticed and miraculously recorded those moments of great human invention that have been largely overlooked by the official chronicles of architecture and urban history. For this reason, his photographs are unique and indispensable."
Robert Fishman
"Since the 1970s Camilo Jose Vergara’s photographs have defined the American urban crisis, and the urban recovery insofar as that has occurred. His images have given rise to a whole international school of urban photography (even if his direct influence is not always acknowledged). He is the Lewis Hine of our time. Vergara has also marched to a different drummer, standing apart both from academic and art-world fashion, and from the celebration of 'the community' over the hard truths of the inner city."
Lawrence Vale
"Despite the singularity implied by the book's title, Camilo Vergara shows us many Harlems, all of them in motion. His still photographs paradoxically enable us to see change by revealing the lingerings and premonitions of an evolving city. He points his camera forward (and backward) in time, not just in space. The result is a fascinating four-decade compendium of visual narratives, reflexively and reflectively assembled by someone acutely aware of his own semi-tolerated presence."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226853369
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/13/2013
  • Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
  • Pages: 269
  • Sales rank: 574,599
  • Product dimensions: 11.90 (w) x 14.50 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Camilo JoséVergara is a photographer and writer, a MacArthur fellow, and the author of many books.

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Table of Contents

By Timothy Gilfoyle


Street Photography of Harlem, Early 1970s
Since 1977, Exploring Harlem through Time-Lapse Photography


Many Harlems, One Cultural Capital of Black America
Lost Harlem
Globalization Takes Over: From Sugar Club to Global Church
Ruins and Semi-Ruins
Landmark Harlem and Harlem Landmarks
“Simply Magnificent”: The New Apartment Buildings of Harlem
The Projects: Unlikely Bastions Preserving Traditions
The Subway


Harlem Walls: Graffiti, Memorials, Murals, and Advertisements
Parades, Celebrations, and Commemorations
“We Put Our Own Spin on Style”: Harlem Fashions
The African Presence in Harlem
Tourists in Search of Harlem’s Heyday
A Defiant Attitude
Lexington Avenue at East 125th Street: A Happening Intersection
Free Food
What Mean These Stones?


In Harlem Wandering from Street to Street


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